Comfortable front seats
Midsize features, compact price
Power fold/lift rear seats
Hefty curb weight
Small rear seat
Every premium brand has their own crossover strategy. In Lexus’ case that strategy has always anchored on the OG premium crossover, the RX. As the RX has grown through its lifespan Lexus has had to shoehorn a subordinate into its lineup in the form of the NX. Ultimately the NX walks and talks like a midsize premium crossover, but its dimensions more closely align with compact offerings. This ‘tweener’ status means the NX is either the goldilocks of the segment or a consolation for those who simply want a Lexus badge.
Let’s find out.
A FAMILIAR FORMULA
The NX 300’s analogs to the rest of the midsize premium crossover segment are vast. There’s a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine under the hood, the same displacement you’ll find under the hood of the Acura RDX, Cadillac XT4, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC Class. Similarly, there’s a front-wheel drive platform shared with the previous Toyota RAV4 underpinning the NX, just like you’d find in the Acura and Cadillac.
Like the RDX and XT4, the NX starts in the upper $30,000 range, while the Germans start in the low $40,000’s. In fact, both RDX and XT4 can be equipped at just about any level to be comparable to the NX 300, except both newer models top out at a higher price with features the NX 300 lacks. The NX has been around since 2014 and is the oldest of the aforementioned competitive set. Its age rears its head ever so randomly, but generally Lexus has been successful at masking NX drivers from the fact it was engineered over a decade ago.
SIZE DOES MATTER
Going back to the NX’s size, it actually isn’t the shortest in its segment. The Cadillac XT4 takes the crown as the shortest, but the NX ends up having the shortest wheelbase (even shorter than the XT4). This largely stems from a massive front overhang, whereas the newer Cadillac is more efficient with its footprint. This small wheelbase is felt throughout the NX, but Lexus has clearly optimized the interior packaging in a specific way.
Despite having the smallest overall footprint, the NX does offer the most interior space in the front seats. In fact, it’s front legroom is one-inch bigger than the closest competitor. We had an XT4 and GLC on hand to do direct comparisons, and it was rather obvious Lexus has over-indexed front passenger space versus the others, even before looking at the dimensions.
The additional legroom allows the driver and front passenger to stretch out, even folks who are cresting six-foot. It doesn’t stop at legroom though, because the front compartment feels more roomy than all the others. The dashboard is lower and not as in your face as just about every competitor.
By optimizing the front space, Lexus has clearly had to take a hit everywhere else. Jumping between the NX and its competitors’ rear seats it became obvious really quick that the NX offers the smallest rear legroom. Sure enough, at 36.1-inches it compares only to the BMW X3. Every other competitor has over one-inch more space. This doesn’t make the NX rear seat uncomfortable, but taller people will likely have their knees hitting the backs of the front seats.
Speaking of comfort, the rear seatbacks in the NX are at an odd angle. In their normal position they feel slightly reclined and it may not be the most comfortable environment over long periods. The NX is also the only vehicle in the segment to not offer heated rear seats as an option, so rear seat passengers are sort of second class in this one.
While comfort may be an issue, it is worth noting that the NX is the only vehicle to offer power fold and lift rear seats. This feature can be activated at the actual seat or via a switch on the driver’s side of the dash. The competitors either offer no power option or just power fold and manual lift.
Some of that generous front space also came at the expense of the cargo area. The NX offers 17.7 cubic feet of space behind the second row. This is a whole 1.7 cubic feet less than the closest rival, the GLC Class. Granted, trips to the grocery store or Costco should not be severely hampered by this space deficit. Those who need to haul large items or even a large breed dog may want to think about this before selecting the NX though.
SOLID IN A GOOD AND BAD WAY
One aspect of the NX we appreciated was its solid feel. It’s tough to describe, but nearly every Lexus product gives off this bank vault kind of vibe and the NX is no different. It feels well-built, which may also stem from the fact it has a hefty 3,940 pound curb weight; second only to the GLC Class. The value of the heft dissipates quickly after the solid feel.
The solid feel also translates to a respectable ride quality. The NX offers a smooth, luxury car ride that is expected of a Lexus product. Actually, it’s slightly impressive it rides as well as it does given the small space between the axles. The premium ride quality does hamper handling a bit when married to the weight this thing has to lug around.
In corners there’s a fair amount of body roll as the inertia takes over. A similar motion is felt under hard braking. Basically the NX has a bit of the float one can recall from cars like the Lincoln Town Car back in the day and this is largely the product of a suspension system lacking modern tech, such as real-time damping.
Despite the mass problem, the NX 300 moves fairly expediently. With 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque it can propel the NX to 60 mph in under 7 seconds. This is in line with other midsizers and better than compacts like the Audi Q3. At no point does the NX feel underpowered, but it also isn’t going to ignite any fires of excitement with its driver.
Lexus has a six-speed automatic transmission bolted to the 2.0-liter in the NX. While the transmission does its job effectively, a six-speed is rather dated by today’s standards. During our testing it honestly felt at times like we were driving a vehicle much older simply because it was hanging onto gears so long. We always had to remind ourselves we’re not working with a modern eight or nine-speed auto in this one.
Controlling the NX comes by way of an electric power steering rack. This rack exhibits a surprising amount of road feedback, which we appreciated during testing. However, the rack gives off a significant amount of whining noise when turning quickly (such as in a parking space). Noise from electric racks is not uncommon, but this one is such that owners may think something is wrong with their car.
Lexus refreshed the NX back in 2018. During this refresh they updated the NX’s technology, including a new optional 10.3-inch infotainment display. By today’s standards this screen is certainly big enough and offers a high-resolution view into Lexus’ Enform infotainment system, but it doesn’t make it more user friendly.
Like most Lexus products there is no touchscreen here. Instead, the entire infotainment system is controlled via a trackpad in the center console. It’s confusing to use and frankly, it took us several days just to figure out how to set a radio preset. Lexus is quickly transitioning to a new touchscreen interface and it can’t come soon enough. The system is made worse by a confusing barrage of buttons on a busy center stack design that mimics Lexus’ spindle grille design. The layout is not the most ergonomic, a problem that translates over to the steering wheel controls as well.
While the big display meets modern standards, the 4.2-inch color LCD in the gauge cluster looks very dated and does not belong in a luxury vehicle.
There may be some deficits when it comes to infotainment, but Lexus is throwing in their Lexus Safety System+ as standard fare on the NX. This bundle includes lane keeping, road sign assist, pedestrian detection, radar cruise control, lane departure warning and auto high-beams. All of these safety features are great additions to the NX and a point of differentiation versus competitors who still make you pay extra for some of these items.
WHO SHOULD BUY IT?
All in all the 2021 Lexus NX 300 isn’t a bad choice. Lexus has clearly optimized this tweener for folks who appreciate front seat space and don’t need the vastness of the larger RX. It also has the engine and (most of) the feature set of larger competitors for slightly less dollars. It seems like an ideal choice for a young couple with no kids or empty-nesters who don’t care about the backseat.
That said, buyers should give serious consideration to the Acura RDX and Cadillac XT4. Both are similarly-priced and far more modern options than the current NX–for now. An all-new Lexus NX is expected for the 2022 model year.